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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reviews Archive - Guy Vanderhaeghe and "A Good Man"

In my last Reviews Archive, I focused on a Newfoundland author.  This time I feature a Saskatchewan writer, Guy Vanderhaeghe, who is best known for his Frontier trilogy.  Here are brief plot descriptions of the first two novels in the series and my review of the last one.

The Englishman’s Boy (1996)
This novel was the winner of the 1996 Governor General's Award for fiction.  The Englishman's Boy is a story within a story—a romance about the myth of movie-making in Hollywood in the 1920s and an account of a real-life massacre of First Nations people in Montana in the 1870s.  Linking these two very different stories is Shorty McAdoo, an aging cowboy, who as a young man acted as a guide for the American and Canadian trappers who perpetrated the massacre and who is now going to be the subject of a no-holds-barred blockbuster set to rival D.W. Griffith's epic Birth of a Nation.

The Last Crossing (2002)
This novel was the winner of Canada Reads 2004.  Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the American and Canadian West and in Victorian England, The Last Crossing is a tale of interwoven lives and stories.  Charles and Addington Gaunt must find their brother Simon, who has gone missing in the wilds of the American West.  Charles, a disillusioned artist, and Addington, a disgraced military captain, enlist the services of a guide to lead them on their journey across a difficult and unknown landscape.  This is the enigmatic Jerry Potts, half Blackfoot, half Scottish, who suffers his own painful past.  The party grows to include Caleb Ayto, a sycophantic American journalist, and Lucy Stoveall, a wise and beautiful woman who travels in the hope of avenging her sister’s vicious murder.  Later, the group is joined by Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran searching for salvation, and Custis’s friend and protector Aloysius Dooley, a saloon-keeper.  This unlikely posse becomes entangled in an unfolding drama that forces each person to come to terms with his own demons.

A Good Man (2011)
5 Stars

This literary western, longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, is set in the late 1870s, primarily between Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan and Fort Benton in Montana.

The protagonist is Wesley Case, a privileged intellectual who seeks to escape the political manipulations of his lumber baron father. After stints as a soldier in Ontario and as a member of the NWMP at Fort Walsh, he decides to take up ranching, purchasing property near Fort Benton. He also becomes a diplomat, serving as an informal ambassador between Major James Walsh, the commander of Fort Walsh, and Major Guido Ilges, the commander of Fort Benton, the nearest American military detachment.

Exchange of information between Walsh and Ilges is crucial. Chief Sitting Bull recently decimated General Custer's troops at Little Bighorn, but no one knows what the Sioux will do next. Will they make another attack on Americans? Will they migrate to Canada and, if so, how will the Canadians react?

The book is not just about politics; there is also romance and mystery. A love triangle develops between Case; Ada Tarr, an independent-minded widow; and Michael Dunne, a thug-for-hire whom Case encountered in the past during a mysterious event which has left him burdened with guilt.

The characters are fully developed. Through flashbacks one learns about the past of most of the characters. As a result, the "bad guys" are humanized, and the "good guys" are not faultless.

There is interplay between personal stories and historical events, the latter explained in terms of how they affect the characters. Both personal and historical dramas are fraught with uncertainty, so suspense is abundant.

Canada - U.S. relations are examined from a historical perspective. Tensions exist between the newly formed country of Canada and a post-Civil War U.S. Questions of security taint relationships between the neighbours: the Canadians have experienced Fenian raids originating in the U.S., and the Americans fear further attacks by Indians after regrouping in Canada.

Canadian and American attitudes to native people are differentiated, attitudes that are somewhat exemplified by Majors Walsh and Ilges. The Americans favour a genocidal approach while Canadians emphasize peaceful resolution of problems. That is not to say that Canada's treatment is exemplary since tribes are starved into submission!

In terms of narrative structure, this novel is strictly conventional, but it possesses a depth and complexity that makes it a very satisfying read. It may lack the experimentation some readers crave, but The Good Man is definitely a good read - this opinion from a reader who prefaced her earlier review of The Sisters Brothers by admitting her dislike of the western genre.